“Woooo!” Lee exclaims in his red, black and green beret (also the Pan-African flag colors). He starts chuckling, but it’s not really the sound of joy — it’s more of a knowing chuckle, like, I told you so and have been telling you to wake up for decades, America, so where have you been? You’re mad late.
”People slept on that film,” says Lee. “They slept on a bunch of them.” The success of his latest, “BlacKkKlansman,” has caused a “reassessment of my body of work,” he says.
Many Spike Lee Joints still feel urgent; the director has seldom struggled for relevance with his chosen subject matter. “BlacKkKlansman” follows a black cop in the 1970s who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan, based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, and feels as vital as ever. Yet as one of the most influential filmmakers in modern cinema, Lee has only this year received his first best director and best picture Oscar nominations. “BlacKkKlansman” netted six altogether, nearly 30 years after his seminal “Do the Right Thing” was snubbed for a best picture nod (“Driving Miss Daisy” won the category that year).
“There’s no way in the world I’m saying, ‘Now I’ve arrived,'” Lee says. What can the academy even offer a filmmaker such as Lee at this point in his career, anyway? “Well, I could win!”
“This is not in any way disrespectful to the academy,” he continues, “but after ‘Do the Right Thing,’ I just said, you know, whatever award it is, I’m not going to let myself be in position where I feel I have to have my work validated. If I was a musician I would say the same thing about the Grammys or the Tonys or any of those organizations that give out awards.”
Building an expansive body of work has been Lee’s goal since his film-school days at New York University (where he now teaches). He remembers reading how Akira Kurosawa, then advanced in age, responded to a journalist who had asked what one of the world’s greatest filmmakers could possibly still have to learn. “There’s a universe I still have to learn,” Lee retells it. So for three decades, Lee has steadily churned out projects — some of them to much acclaim, others not so much. With Oscar nods and box-office tallies in hand, “BlacKkKlansman” could be considered one of Lee’s most successful films to date. But to him, it’s just the latest Spike Lee Joint.
"Timing is everything, and on this film, the stars were in alignment,” Lee says. “I don’t think I tried any harder on this film than others, but there are certain things when you put a film out, when you put a piece of art out in the universe, you have no control after that.”
Just three years ago, Lee joined an Oscars boycott because of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign started by April Reign. That year, then-Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced changes to diversify its voting ranks. Until then, only three black directors had ever been nominated for an Oscar (John Singleton, Lee Daniels and Steve McQueen). That number has since doubled.
“April Reign and Cheryl Boone Isaacs can take a bow any time a person of color gets nominated,” Lee says, “because they had something to do with it.” And this includes Lee, who has been publicly jubilant about his film’s Oscar nominations, including nods for longtime collaborators, composer Terence Blanchard and editor Barry Alexander Brown, as well as writer Kevin Willmott and supporting actor Adam Driver. After it was announced that the film got a best picture nod, Lee posted an Instagram video where he is “jumping up and down like I was courtside at Madison Square Garden when the Knicks were good” because the nomination recognized everyone involved in the film.
It feels as if Hollywood has finally entered an era in which blackness, in many forms, is getting mainstream recognition; several black filmmakers are simultaneously releasing varied work that is critically and commercially successful. Ava DuVernay, whose feature “Selma” and documentary “13th” earned Oscar nods, is also a producing powerhouse. Barry Jenkins’s stunning “Moonlight” won best picture in 2017, and his “If Beale Street Could Talk” has several nominations this year. Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” turned into a breakout hit and defied genre, while securing him an Oscar win. Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” surpassed the $1 billion global box office mark, while picking up a best picture Oscar nod, too.
Filmmakers who grew up inspired by Lee have turned into his contemporaries, as well as his critics. Boots Riley, who has said Lee is “the reason I went to film school,” posted a lengthy political critique of “BlacKkKlansman,” writing, “It’s a made-up story in which the false parts of it to try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racist oppression.” Lee has said that his films have “been very critical of the police” but “I’m never going to say all police are corrupt, that all police hate people of color.”
Lee is in conversation with the younger generation of filmmakers. He’s friends with Coogler, who has said one of his most formative cinematic experiences was seeing “Malcolm X” as a child with his father. And Peele, a producer on “BlacKkKlansman,” initially pitched Lee the idea for the film.
For Lee, it’s a feeling akin to that of a proud parent. “You’re seeing the new generation come up and doing stuff I’ve never done before, so it is very, very exciting,” he says. “I tell Ryan, I told Jordan, you guys are changing the game, especially with the whole thing about international” and the “false narrative that black films don’t travel.” That preconceived notion can mean little to no money budgeted for foreign distribution.
“The grosses of those films,” Lee says, “have shown that it’s bulls---.”
But Lee is also adamant: This didn’t start with him. There is a long line of black directors — Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, Ossie Davis — “a tradition that all of us, we’ve got to keep it going.”
And although the awards love seems pronounced now, Lee is reserved with his excitement. “It seems like every 10 years black people get some nominations and my phone will be ringing off the hook from journalists saying, what do I think,” Lee says. “For me, I was happy for the individuals, but I knew that this is a trend because it would be a nine-year drought after that.”
So he’s looking ahead. Will there be more accolades next year? Will there be consistent output and recognition for three or four consecutive years? And he’s not just thinking about the awards, as nice as they are. “The long game is the gatekeepers. These are individuals, a select few, who have quarterly meetings and decide what we’re making and we’re not making.” He cites the “Hamilton” song, “The Room Where It Happens,” to explain that if people of color and women aren’t in the room, “then you don’t really have a say, because you’re not in the room to put your hand up, throw a chair or say, ‘what are we doing?’”
While the director has been talking about the future of filmmaking, the Virginia blackface scandal has roiled on, and people are turning to a Spike Lee Joint for lessons. A clip of the haunting blackface montage from “Bamboozled” makes the rounds on social media, along with pleas to watch. To repost. Because Lee already did the work. He showed us, in three minutes, the pain and pervasiveness of this horrid American practice.
The following day, Lee writes that he’s updated his Instagram bio with a link to the scene. It’s not even an official clip, but one hosted on a random YouTube page.
“This film needs to be rereleased,” writes one commenter. “The message is so important and needs to be heard by this new generation.”
It’s not easy to get your hands on a copy. But these days, and probably for many more, people will have reasons to look for what Lee has made.